Art of the Genre: Curse of the Crimson Throne

Art of the Genre: Curse of the Crimson Throne

pzo9007_500Ok, so I don’t get to game as much as I like, and that’s a shame, but there are still times when I do get to have fun with RPGs. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and during that period the bulk of what I’ve run as a Dungeon Master has been all home brew, which in gamer terms means I made it up. There is something to be said for the creativity of doing so, and as an imagination centered guy I get a great kick out of creating adventures, timelines, histories, legends, and anything else you can name.

That being said, I’ve also had the opportunity to sit back and use someone else’s creative spark to frame my adventures when I DM. In Old School terms this means using a module, and many and many again famed ones exist from the 1980s when D&D was new to the mass populace and DMs were raw and could use a little help when driving their business.

I’d like to say in my time within the genre ‘I’ve played them all’, which of course isn’t true, but I will debate the concept that I’ve played all the ones that truly matter… Yet for all their old school wonder, I was always on the lookout for something, anything, in today’s market that could rival the simple genius that were those original supplements.

Enter Paizo’s Pathfinder Adventure Paths. With ‘Edition Wars’ in full swing and Wizards of the Coast trying to rally a bloodied banner with 5th Edition, I’m not going to disparage any game that helps creative people gather around a table and share face time for fun, but I will hold up Paizo’s Pathfinder as an example of what ‘good’ really is in today’s RPG market.

My first real experience with Pathfinder came with Rise of the Runelords, but that was more a piecemeal type of experiment where I only played what I wanted from the six module Adventure Path at various sessions and campaigns. It wasn’t until Paizo’s 2nd Adventure Path, Curse of the Crimson Throne, that I took up the challenge of seeing if I could run an entire series from start to finish as intended.

Now logistically, this is tough to do, but in my case it becomes near impossible. You see, I only game in what my old friends and I call, “The Week”, a period of no more than eight days where we seclude ourselves away from wives and children, at a neutral location, and game. Now as great as that may sound, and make no mistake it is, the thought of running characters from 1st level to 16th level in that span [as is intended by the Adventure Path] is daunting.

pzo9008_500I, however, consider myself a strong DM, so I took on the challenge of running the entire Curse of the Crimson Throne back, to back, to back, to back, to back, to back on six successive days from 8 AM till whenever it took to finish the full module which tended to be between 11 PM and 1 AM the next day.

Yeah baby, that’s hardcore gaming! Gamers boasting weak sauce need not apply, and one of my players, Murph, commented after The Week that his only complaint was that there might have been too much gaming, to which I replied there is no such animal.

So, in the spring of 2009, the week before Memorial Day to be exact, my four players and I set up shop around my dining room table and began Edge of Anarchy. [My wife and son were on the far side of the continent visiting her family]

This 1st module deals with characters at 1st thru 3rd level and was written by Nicolas Logue with cover art by Wayne Reynolds with contributing interior art by various artists including Ben Wootten. Now I’m going to note a couple of things here for those scoring at home, when this Adventure Path was written Paizo was still working under the OGL of D&D 3.5, so that’s what you’ll find this in, and second is that this is pre-shortening, which is to say before Paizo designers realized that these Adventure Paths might be too big and streamlined them for ease of play. So in essence if there is ‘old school Paizo this is it.

Edge of Anarchy also introduces another Paizo product, the Harrow Deck which is a kind of combination Deck of Many Things and Tarot Cards. To say my players loved it is an understatement, and we still use it today in almost every campaign I run. It brought a serious spiritual bent to the entire campaign and at times it was almost haunting how correct the deck was when the players drew from it.

Anarchy is a ‘city crawl’, and I love a good city campaign, especially at low level. It does its job as it paints a fine picture of the metropolis of Korvosa, its dark Queen, and how the characters interact with the locals. Sure, there are fights, but the most fun is in getting players to actually care about the city and Logue’s writing does that in spades.

[Day One: Feeling AWESOME! That kicked, and all my players know it. As we head to bed we can’t wait to get up in the morning and see where the next adventure takes us.]

pzo9009_500Once baptized to their place and standing in Korvosa, and having attained some experience, the party will move on to module two, Seven Days to the Grave. This second piece to the Adventure Path was written by F. Wesley Schneider and takes the characters into a truly great RP situation, that being the outbreak of a great plague! Yes, the city comes alive with death, and the player characters are in a race to stop the spread of the disease before it’s too late. I mean come on, who isn’t intrigued with ‘contagion’?

This module handles each turn with exacting detail and gives a fantastic timeline and countdown that keeps the players honest while pushing them to their collective limits. There are grave robbers, masked doctors, and the walking dead before this baby turns the corner on completion. It takes players from roughly levels 4th to 7th, and you get some of the absolute best levels for game play throughout.

[Day Two: Nice! We did it again and most of us stay up later than the 1 AM ending of the session to update characters that leveled to 7th in the final encounters. Good stuff, even if I’m feeling a bit of fatigue. Con check, Success! Good to go, even if my voice is a bit rough.]

If your characters survived, like mine did, they enter module three, Escape from Old Korvosa. Written by Richard Pett, this third installment features the characters moving from their comfort zone in the new city to the more secluded and dark ‘Old Korvosa’. Here, there are all manner of dark intrigues, plots, and assassins that lurk about the town as a greater mystery starts to be set into play.

Pett does a great job of spinning a tale, taking what has been provided from the previous two modules and bringing it to bloom as the characters humble lives start to unravel around them. Before the module is done, character will have advanced to 10th level or thereabouts and are looking to flee their home to help find a way to save it.

[Day Three: Wow… had to throw a massive Nerf battle in there just to clear some ass-cramps and sore legs about mid-day. Characters are now fully formed and second nature to players, and I know them well. Personal stories I’ve scattered through the series are in full bloom, and although my brain is going flat toward the end of the day, we grind through, but leveling and other updates are left to the morning. Voice is hanging in, and I personally think the gravel I’ve got going in it is a bit sexy. I call my wife to try it out… she thinks I sound ill]

pzo9010_500In module four, A History of Ashes, author Michael Kortes gets to have some serious fun. Korvosa quickly becomes like a distant memory of youth as the characters move into the Cinderlands and are faced with barbarians, old rituals, and even purple worms that reminisce to the pages of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

It’s at this point that players have lost all concept of self and should be performing as a cohesive unit, no matter what petty differences they had at 1st level. I kid you not, by Day Four we had ‘become’ our players and no one had to ask ‘who is saying that?’. These modules are so deep that playing them this close together created a gaming dynamic few players will ever get the chance to experience and for that I have to say bravo to Paizo and their staff. There were moments when we truly were ‘there’.

[Day Four: Holy Cow, four straight days of eighteen hour gaming down and we just clip the end of A History of Ashes. Some numbness sets in a couple times during the day, Murph, my weakest link, spends much of the day with his head hanging and Brent has gotten a rash that he won’t stop scratching. Moods are touchy, but the play is strong. We order in pizza, watch Doomsday on DVD to take the edge off as a two hour break. It works, and with a bit of calorie charge and bluster we take down Ashes by 2 AM and then drag ourselves to bed.]

Assuming the party makes it through these trials, they will enter module five, The Skeletons of Scarwall. At 12th level, your party is not very formidable, and as a DM you’ve got to watch them carefully but the writing of author Greg A. Vaughan is a great help in this rather huge dungeon crawl of an adventure.

You like the dead? Check. You like demons? Check. You like Dragons? Check. Yep, this module has everything you could want for a creepy fallen fortress and all the nastiness an inspired creative team can dream up.

pzo9011_500This adventure, for all the fighting, is actually a great cat and mouse game where players must once again think about everything they do as they try to solve a mystery that will give them the key they need to save their beloved Korvosa.

[Day Five: Ok, now I’m not going to lie… by this point I’m thinking this might have been a mistake. My players are tired, I’m brain fried, but I don’t give up, and by all the blades I Hell they’re going to finish this and they know it. Nice part about Scarwall is the bulk of this adventure is a crawl, and although it’s a thinking crawl, the boys can simply kill or be killed so that works at this point. Role-playing is at a minimum, but the story carries us along until the end. I have to give thanks here to the Paizo’s writers. If not for such strong modules, I’m sure we would have given up days ago.]

Now, if your players survive this, and that’s no easy ‘if’, they will have become fairly epic, which I think may be the whole purpose for these Adventure Paths. I mean when it all comes down to it, these Paths take characters through an entire career of levels, and by the end there seems little else to do other than retire with a lifetime of great stories to tell around the local tavern.

But I get ahead of myself, instead, the characters will move to module six, Crown of Fangs! Yes, indeed, this is what it’s all about. Author Tito Leati is challenged with wrapping everything five other authors have done into a neat bow and having everyone who has played it believe that it works. So does it? Hell yeah it does! We get everything the characters want, revenge, hero status, wealth, you name it, and, AND, they get that incredible boss battle that we all knew was coming since day one.

When it’s done, and oh it’s so sweet when it’s, everyone can look back at all that has happened and shake their heads. This was IT! We did it, we busted right thought everything editor James Jacobs had to throw at us and lived to tell the tale, take that James! God bless great dice rolling, ingenious players, and some blind luck because I’m sitting on the top of the world.

pzo9012_500Just like the five previous modules, Crown of Fangs delivers in spades. When I think back on the entire Adventure Path I can say nothing more than it climbs that lofty slope to stand beside G1-2-3, D1-2-3, and Q1 as an epic ball breaker of a story that just won’t get old no matter how many times you chose to play it.

[Day Six: Voice is a wreck, and although my players have rebounded as they’ve sensed the light at the end of the tunnel and are excited about the endgame, I’ve pretty much lost it. We’re behind schedule, and I push on through till 2 AM when the final boss battle hits. The players look at me, one of which will be leaving on a plane in 18 hours and they vote me out from behind the screens. I relent, exhausted, and we retire without completing Crown of Fangs on the 6th day.]

[Day Seven: Revived from eight strong hours of sleep, the boys and I enter the final boss battle, an almost three hour event and finish the Adventure Path to cheers around the table. I leave two players to update and rest while Brent and I take Joe to the airport on a two hour round trip. We make it with about thirty minutes to spare… in all, it couldn’t have been better]

Paizo, you boys and gals just don’t quit, period, and as I look down at these now four year-old modules and the little numbers on the spine from 7 to 12, I can’t believe that number 54 in this series of Adventure Paths is currently on the way to my door in the final volume of Jade Regent! Now I just have to ask myself, do I feel lucky? Do I dare try to tame this beast once more as the 2012 ‘Week’ quickly approaches? Can Jade Regent hold the same power as Curse of the Crimson Throne? I guess only time will tell if this now 40 year-old body can withstand the punishment and pleasure of such an event, but whatever the case the modules themselves remain as solid gold examples that true adventure still reigns supreme at Paizo, no matter what Edition you favor.

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Thanks for sharing this. I was looking forward to a good Pathfinder adventure path for a while now. One other question I had is, do I need all the accesories (map folio, gamemastery item cards, player’s guide and the Harrow deck) to truly enjoy this?


excellent post! I’ve often thought about running the kingmaker adventure path. or at least buying the first one and using it as a starting point.

I think your way of running them has merit. I if i ran a whole series it would have to be in a short amount of time.

[…] Proprio oggi il blog di Black Gate descrive una partita durata sette giorni consecutivi, con una media di diciotto ore di gioco al […]

John Hocking

Wow. Back when I used to run an RPG (so…long…ago…) I thought we were pretty hardcore if we did a 12 hour run.
This, man, this looks more like a drug binge, a group pathology, a fugue state or a crime spree. Such devotion! Such involvement! Such…raw, undiluted imaginative fun.
I’m jealous.

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